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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Texas’ horizontal passing presents challenge for OU defense

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The Sooners can’t allow the Longhorns to beat them up on the perimeter again.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Louisiana Tech at Texas Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The offensive philosophy of the Texas Longhorns doesn’t fit neatly in conventional buckets.

Under coach Tom Herman, Texas runs plenty of no-huddle, but it’s not exactly an uptempo offense. Passing is key to UT controlling possession. The team has a ground-centric identity; yet, it’s more potent through the air.

However, much like the Ohio State Buckeyes under Herman’s former boss Urban Meyer, physicality on the perimeter may be what sets the UT offense apart.

UT’s skill players generally lack overwhelming speed. Instead, the Horns can leverage their size in one-on-one passing matchups and screens to muscle defenders out wide. It makes for an effective complement to the tough running of quarterback Sam Ehlinger and running back Keaontay Ingram.

The first meeting between Texas and the Oklahoma Sooners last season showed just how ill-equipped the Sooners were to handle that kind of offensive attack. The Longhorns worked OU over outside, repeatedly targeting receivers Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey against mismatched DBs. Even what looked like give-up plays turned into big gains because of how badly UT’s receivers bullied the OU defense.

Finding a way for the Sooners to counter the Longhorns on the perimeter would go a long way towards stamping out Texas’s hopes of another upset in the Cotton Bowl.

The horizontal challenge

Although the Horns seem more willing to throw deep this season than they did in 2018, they haven’t abandoned the staples of their horizontal and short passing game. In a sense, Herman uses screens and quick slants almost as extensions of the running game to keep down-and-distance situations manageable.

For example, the play above against LSU occurred on second down after the Tigers snuffed out an Ingram run for no gain. UT comes out in 11 personnel (one RB, one tight end), and TE Reese Leitao (No. 81) split out as an inside receiver to the field side of the 2x2 formation. This creates tricky conflicts for the Tigers and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who still have to worry about Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay lined up to the boundary – as well as Ehlinger and RB Roschon Johnson running out of what is a typical passing formation.

LSU essentially puts six players in the box, with outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson standing up outside the tackle to the field side of the offensive formation. The Tigers give Ehlinger a single-high safety look with nickel personnel.

On the snap, Johnson flares out wide, but LSU inside linebacker Patrick Queen (No. 8) holds his position for a beat or so to guard against Ehlinger running a QB draw. WR John Burt, who’s lined up out outside to the field, runs off his cornerback before blocking down the field. Leitao locks up with LSU safety Jacoby Stevens (No. 3), clearing extra room for Johnson to operate after Ehlinger dumps the ball off. Queen chases in behind the action and eventually makes the stop, but not before Johnson picks up eight yards.

Now in LSU territory, the Horns had two plays at their disposal to pick up two yards and a first down. (They actually scored on a long catch-and-run by Duvernay on fourth down after taking a shot on a vertical route to Burt the play before.)

When those kinds of high-percentage completions are consistently netting your team five-plus yards, it opens up a lot of options for your offense. Additionally, it enables Texas to keep the chains moving on offense.

A new receiving threat

While Collin Johnson received most of the attention coming into the season, Duvernay has proven to be the cornerstone of the UT receivers this year. His track-star speed makes him an exception among the unit, and he runs with the power of a traditional running back.

Herman occasionally uses Duvernay on jet sweeps or puts the senior wideout in the backfield. Importantly, his skill set is a handful when incorporated into UT’s horizontal throwing game.

If Duvernay is doing that to LSU’s Grant Delpit, who’s one of the best safeties in the country, you can imagine how it might play out for OU’s defensive backs on Saturday.

Play SAM again?

When OU and Texas squared off a second time last year, the Sooners switched up their defensive scheme to combat UT’s strength on the perimeter. Interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill switched out a nickel and inserted Caleb Kelly at SAM LB for the entirety of the Big 12 title game. That ensured the Sooners had a sturdier run defender on the edge in the game.

The result was a better showing against the UT ground attack and horizontal passing game. The trade-off came from the fact that the lineup essentially forced strong safety Tre Norwood to shadow Kelly all game to help in coverage. That created more one-on-one opportunities for the UT WRs to break off big gains on deep routes. Ehlinger and Johnson lit up the OU defense, but the Longhorns still fell short in the rematch largely as a result of what OU was able to take away.

Unfortunately for the Sooners, injuries have kept Norwood and Kelly from seeing the field this season. That didn’t stop OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch from experimenting with a similar look last week against the Kansas Jayhawks.

In typical Les Miles fashion, KU deployed a variety of heavy sets with 12 personnel to clear the way for dangerous RB Pooka Williams. Grinch responded by pulling NB Brendan Radley-Hiles from the game and adding a SAM LB in his place. That job rotated between freshman David Ugwoegbu and redshirt sophomore Ryan Jones, who’s playing something like his fifth or sixth different position in three years.

In the shot above, Ugwoegbu (No. 34) lines up at SAM in space to the field side of the formation. Against the run, he has force/contain responsibility to the wide side of the field. He has to stand his ground against a lead blocker – presumably the H-back lined up offset to the QB in a pistol formation – and wall off the edge to force the runner back inside to pursuing defenders. He can play a similar role versus a screen or flare pass: Blow up perimeter blockers and re-direct the ball carrier to help inside.

Of course, Texas won’t be rolling in 12 personnel. Playing a SAM when there are three vertical receiving threats in 11 personnel raises another set of issues in coverage, and OU saw that play out in the Big 12 title game. Ultimately, Grinch may need to decide if he prefers the Longhorns try to beat his defense throwing long or short.